Is the Self a Mental Defect?

Image from wikimedia by Nick Hobgood, CC-BY-SA 3.0

“Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”       — Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”  — Rust Cohle – character in the TV series True Detective

It’s easy to make up theories about prehistory and about how things came to be the way they are. Nothing can be proved. We don’t know what happened in our distant past, even vaguely. And as Rachel Syme explains in her article about the podcast series “You’re Wrong About…”, we believe, when it comes to history as in all things, what we want to believe is true. (There I’ve said it again; this might soon become Pollard’s very unoriginal Third Law.) I’m no different from anyone else, so this article is probably about what I want to believe about the evolution of the self, but at least I spare my readers the academic pretentiousness and cheesy citations to support my unsupportable theory.

My exploration of the theory of the self began with Julian Jaynes’ 50-year-old classic The Origin of Consciousness, which was essentially the writer’s sole published work beyond academic circles, and the result of a life’s work. He starts with a question — why were the earliest known societies with written language so preoccupied with spirits, gods and demons, and why does the tenor of their writing seem so different from even the closely-following works of the late Greek culture?

His hypothesis is basically that about 3,000 years ago, the human mind evolved from a “bicameral” sense-making device, to an integrated, synthesizing one. He argues that both language and the evolution of the capacity for synthesis of the brain’s bicameral processing were necessary preconditions for what he calls consciousness — essentially the awareness of one’s self as a separate thing with agency, and commensurate awareness of others with the same attributes.

Before that, while there was lots of cognition (which many living creatures have to a greater or lesser extent), there was no consciousness. Humans back then acted on impulses (“hallucinations”, the voices of the gods) that arose in their sense-making brains, as much as they acted in accordance with the autonomic instructions of their biological and experiential conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment. The result was chaos.

It’s an interesting theory that does offer an explanation for his questions about “pre-conscious” humans prior to about 3000 ya. It may also be right — there have been few compelling alternative suggestions in the 50 years since it was published, though that may be because most people probably don’t care how or why “pre-conscious” societies were different from ours.

Julian starts with a thorough review of various models to explain the nature of consciousness that had arisen by the time of publication in the 1970s. To me the most interesting and compelling (because it’s the one that I want to believe) is what he calls the “helpless spectator” model:

The [helpless spectator] doctrine assures us consciousness [aka the ‘self’] does nothing at all, and in fact can do nothing. Many tough-minded experimentalists still agree with Herbert Spencer that such a downgrading of consciousness is the only view that is consistent with straight evolutionary theory. Animals are evolved; nervous systems and their mechanical reflexes increase in complexity; when some unspecified degree of nervous complexity is reached, consciousness appears, and so begins its futile course as a helpless spectator of cosmic events. What we do is completely controlled by the wiring diagram of the brain and its reflexes to external stimuli. Consciousness is nothing more than the heat given off by the wires, a mere epiphenomenon. Conscious feelings, as Hodgson put it, are mere colors laid on the surface of a mosaic which is held together by its stones, not by the colors. Or as Huxley insisted in a famous essay, “we are conscious automata.” Consciousness can no more modify the working mechanism of the body or its behavior than can the whistle of a train modify its machinery or where it goes. Moan as it will, the tracks have long ago decided where the train will go. Consciousness is the melody that floats from the harp and cannot pluck its strings, the foam struck raging from the river that cannot change its course, the shadow that loyally walks step for step beside the pedestrian, but is quite unable to influence its journey.

Julian doesn’t choose a favourite among the five models; he’s more concerned about how and why consciousness arose than by what it is.

If the helpless spectator model is correct (and we can and will never know), then the question arises: What good is consciousness and why hasn’t it ceased to be the way humans apparently are if it doesn’t actually help us to survive and thrive?

A possible answer to this is that nature just tries things out, when they’re possible, to see if a “better fit” can be identified for species within Gaia, one that would make all-life-on-earth tick a little better. Most of what’s in our bodies has no discernible purpose, and much of it was probably the result of abandoned evolutionary experiments; Gaia’s work is never done, much to the dismay of anthropocentrists.

So why hasn’t consciousness ceased to be the human condition if it is just a helpless spectator, if the creature in which consciousness presumes to reside is unaffected by it? The obvious answer to this is that it’s only been around 3,000 years, a blink in the cosmic eye of time. And the sixth great extinction we have precipitated may be nature’s way of doing just that — though, sadly, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps planetary annihilation is nature’s way of continuing its successful experiment with cognition, while jettisoning the useless excess cognition we call consciousness.

Or, if Julian’s theory is correct, perhaps the mental illness of the too-big-for-its-own-good early human brain and its “hallucinations” was a problem for Gaia even before the emergence of consciousness. Or perhaps the evolution of consciousness was an attempt to correct the likely-dysfunctional “hallucinations”. We can never know, and it doesn’t matter much. My take from all of this is that the helpless spectator, the consciousness or illusion of apparent separateness and selfhood, was an evolutionary error, a form of mental defect or illness that has now infected almost all of the humans on the planet.

The social brain hypothesis of Robin Dunbar and Michael Graziano takes Julian’s ideas a step further, arguing that language and consciousness evolved in humans not so much in order to create a model of self, but rather to enable us to create a model of others — as social creatures, we benefit from insights as to what motivates others of our species to do what they do.

Michael explains that a forerunner to consciousness was the attention-focusing mechanism of the body. If you’ve watched birds whose heads bob continually as they move, you may know that that movement is (counter-intuitively) energy-conserving for the bird, and that the bird brain has to create a model of what its sensory perceptions represent, by compensating for this constant movement of the head and eyes. All creatures’ eyes have mechanisms for focusing attention on what’s evolutionarily likely to be important — they automatically focus on outlines between apparent objects so that eg the yellow tiger can be quickly differentiated from the surrounding camouflage.

It’s not a huge step from there, Michael argues, to imagine that this attention-focusing brain might pause between tiger sightings to ponder what it is that is focusing its attention. The Attention Schema Theory posits just that, as the origin of consciousness — an awareness simultaneously of “other” and of “self”. Such awareness is unnecessary to escape the tiger, of course, but it’s useful in manipulating others in one’s tribe to do things one thinks should be done. Large brains are capable of “covert attention”, focusing on what it is not immediate and demanding. They are capable of imagining what cannot be directly sensed, which requires the invention of time and space to accommodate.

And with that enormous imaginative capacity comes its consequences — the ideas of agency and responsibility and the gamut of negative emotions — anxiety arising from ordinary immediate fear, shame and guilt arising from ordinary immediate sadness, blame and rage-sustained violence and enduring hatred arising from ordinary immediate anger. These “secondary” emotions need the illusion of consciousness and a separate self to claim them. If “we” conscious selves are indeed helpless spectators, these secondary negative emotions could be enormously destructive, self-damaging, and self-traumatizing. Just as hallucinations can affect our conditioned behaviour even though they are not real, the negative emotions claimed by the traumatized separate conscious self may affect how we apparently behave (wars, depression, neuroses and psychoses) even though that self is an illusion, a mental illness, a defect in the brain.

The obvious question, in the unlikely case you buy what I’ve said so far, is — can it be cured? If agency and selfhood and separation are just illusions, and if the radical non-dualists are right that consciousness and self are completely unnecessary to the successful functioning of the totally conditioned (given the ever-changing circumstances of the moment, so nothing is predetermined) character, could we “fix” the brain to rid it of the self and sense of consciousness and separation? The radical non-dualists assert we cannot — there is no “path” to losing the mental defect of the self; the illusion will either cease in one’s apparent lifetime or it won’t.

Others are not so sure. Long-term meditators have been found through fMRI scans to have different mental patterning processes and to be less prone to the secondary negative emotions that seem to accompany the emergence of the self, separation and consciousness. (It is ironic that many meditators claim to seek/find a “higher consciousness”, when perhaps they should be striving to lose their conscious selves entirely, and perhaps meditation leads in part towards that.)

Michael Pollan’s new book talks about the “default settings” in the brain’s neural pathways that seem associated with the sense of self, which temporarily cease to fire under some hallucinogens, and which apparently fire less often in those who’ve meditated for decades. It would be fascinating to do an fMRI scan of Tim Cliss‘ or Tony Parsons‘ brain and see if these pathways no longer fire in their brains. If so, although it would seem a long way away, I wonder if it might actually be possible to develop a genetic or surgical therapy that would permanently disrupt these pathways, essentially ending the sense of self.

Could the mental defect that has plagued us for at least 3,000 years one day be cured by a simple surgical excising of the neural pathway that lies behind it? That would be real liberation! I’m dubious — we know so little about the brain and its workings — but the seeker in all of us never ceases looking for the end of separation’s anguish. What if, instead of a path to liberation, the way to it is by shutting down a false, illusory, stressful and useless path that already exists in our brains?

Human brains are already shrinking — we don’t need to be as smart to survive imprisoned by the terrible knowledge of cities and civilizations. But we will never be healthy as long as we have the civilization disease that would seem to stem from the mental defect we call consciousness.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galápagos — about the last surviving humans in a post-civ world, in which the survivors evolve into small-brained furry sea-lion like creatures, free of selves, will turn out to be prescient. (The story’s narrator says “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain.”) Nature will bat last, and she has a wonderful sense of humour.

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5 Responses to Is the Self a Mental Defect?

  1. Tim Aldiss says:

    I love that True Detective quote. What a character Rust is!

  2. Prof. Fredkin at M.I.T did some revolutionary work applying principles from data processing theory to answer a lot of big questions. Like if you have a question about biology Darwin’s principles are a great place to start. So from what we know about data processing: If you are writing subroutines for a guided missile or say for a bat to escape a hawk, awareness of the parameters of self and its relationships to everything else are intrinsic to computing a zig or zag in the most quick and efficient way possible with the least computing time, storage and power. The bat makes judgements on the basis of who he is, depending on his own abilities and strengths and weaknesses which he knows intimately. Maybe he has plenty of time hanging upside down in the dark with his metabolism shut down to contemplate his not-self. But maybe he is what he has to be, as vital a person as you and I and the family dog. And if you think that one isn’t self conscious just do him wrong and see the look in his eyes.

  3. Nathan Shepperd says:

    Pleased to see that Douglas Adams quote!

    But I think the obvious answer is calling it a defect is just a story, like calling all the Dinosaurs defective – defective is a judgement. And being pessimistic it’s quite possible for life on this planet to wipe itself out. You could call it an evolutionary “mistake” but isn’t that just a story? Evolution isn’t a thing because we made it up to guess at how what we see came about, even if it’s a good guess and seems pretty convincing.

    I end up wondering what the point of this philosophising is (not that I don’t find your writing interesting) because you’re talking about going to a post consciousness response to stimuli where there is no ambition or goals and so on. Perilously entertaining ultimately!

  4. connie says:

    Jaines’ book was one of the most exciting I’ve ever read. I was so compelled by his theory. It’s fun, any time, to hear it mentioned. Also yours is the only blog I consistently read. This is a huge compliment, as I have been a voracious reader all my life and have become very discerning in my old age.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Yes, Nathan — it’s just a story. That’s all we’ve got. Disrupting the neural pathways that produce the illusion of self is a story. Could it also be “end of story”? The self is a recursive invention; perhaps its resolution is too.

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